The Problem With Chasing Zeroes

Stowe Boyd posed a very good question in response to my recent piece on colliding crises.

What if crises are not of the sort that can be attacked and surmounted in a ‘short period of time’? The US housing crisis (and UK) is likely to require decades of focused effort to overcome. In the business context, how long will Boeing take to rework its foundations and return to an engineering-first culture? Likewise Volkswagen? A decade?

The climate crisis will take 1000 years to get ‘back’ to the temperatures of the 1960s. Can we stay in crisis mode that long?

It’s a great point. Part of the problem is it’s very easy to set a goal date for solving something or eradicating an issue. Actually mobilising the various people, players, industries to take action whilst allocating them sufficient resources is another thing entirely.

It is common in most companies and sectors for unrealistic goals to be set.

This should not be a surprise to us, as organisations are simply a collection of people – and in our quest to lead better personal lives, we often set ourselves unattainable goals.

And whilst the persistent pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals can lead to higher achievements (via breakthrough innovation or just incremental improvement), it can often make matters worse when a failure to reach the desired results leads to wasted time and resources or a lack of motivation.

The fact that we are so quick to label every problem a crisis leads to conflicting crises all vying for attention and can lead to a belief they be eradicated entirely.

It’s notable that eradication as a realistic goal has become something of a commonly held belief.

Net Zero.

Zero Covid.

Zero Tolerance.

Number one and two of the UN Sustainable Development Goals are:

1 – End Poverty

2 – Zero Hunger

Easy huh?

The downside of this kind of super aspirational goal setting is that it can create entirely new categories of problem as efforts to eradicate one issue create a new one or exacerbate another. We’ve seen this with attempts to reach zero- Covid for example where the Chinese policy appears successful in keeping deaths low but has profoundly affected the country’s economy.

It’s a controversial point to argue, but an extreme commitment to Net Zero can result in other important goals falling by the wayside. Certainly, Sri Lanka, which scored 98 out of 100 on the “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – criteria for investment, is an example of what can happen when one goal (sustainability) is valued over another (eliminating hunger).

Most of these issues on their own fall into the category of ‘wicked problems’ —issues so severe and so complex that finding answers almost seems impossible.

However – by attempting to place Net Zero next to Zero Hunger next to Zero Poverty you create a super wicked problem. This is where chasing zeroes can get you.

Wicked problems themselves are difficult to define because of their complex nature – and this means that finding solutions to them often isn’t easy. Especially in a world where organisations and even internal departments act in isolation. The chance of solving wicked problems whilst acting alone is virtually zero. The issue we face is that many of our organisations are driven by top down metrics that attempt to solve things through quite a narrow lens.

Because we don’t employ a rigorous process for understanding the dimensions of the problem, we miss opportunities to address the underlying strategic issues.This gives our organisations the illusion of solving problems, when in fact we often create more problems for others. Wicked problems are forever interconnected. You can’t solve them at organisation or even sector level. The challenge is connecting the various players and closing the gaps.

Many of our problems appear impossible but rather they are nijute (not impossible , just too expensive.) In the social sector this is more likely to be too expensive and just too complicated as well.


It’s actually fine to set big audacious goals as long as you encourage a number of experiments than can attempt to solve aspects of the larger problem. Let’s remember that breakthroughs emerge from the accumulation of numerous advances—some big and many small.

This is why all organisations should maintain an innovation pipeline that tracks all efforts to solve problems from different perspectives. It means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Innovation tends to start by generating ideas, but the hard work is selecting the best ones and prioritizing them, testing them, connecting them or killing them.

Sticking a big fat zero on the problem doesn’t solve it. It can inspire new thinking and galvanise people to a cause. But a singular focus on achieving nirvana can make our other problems immeasurably worse as well.

Related: When Everything Is A Crisis, Nothing Is